The all famous question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When I was asked this at 6 years of age, my answer would be a vet. Hands down! At that age, all I knew was that people who work with animals were vets. Many young children I have met recently have this same idea. I was adamant I was to be a vet and this went on for 4 years. Despite starting volunteering at the local SPCA on a Saturday where I would socialise with the cats and knowing I could be a rescuer. My mind was set.
I was then told by a wise adult, the manager of the rescue that, if I were to be a vet, I need to start learning about the anatomy of domestic animals as a start. My head was mind-blown. For the next few months, all I did was try and remember the skull, teeth, ribs, you name it, focussing on the different domestic animals. At such a young age, I was out my depth but determination lead me on. But no, it wasn’t all about the anatomy! I was then told to learn the diseases animals contract, where they came from and how to treat them. Okay, now I was scared. After a bit of thought and contemplation, a vet nurse sounded slightly easier. So from no on, this is what I would be.
One day, on my way to class at the mere age of 10, I was chatting to a friend. They had told me about the Mutare Museum running a Junior Museum Club. Well, I wanted to do everything and anything at this age so, I asked them to tell me more. Apparently, you get to learn about animals. Animals! They had all my attention when I heard that. I needn’t know more as the idea was sold. That afternoon I ran to my mom and begged her to take me to the club the next Friday at 2pm and guess what, she said, “Yes!” Can you believe it! Well, she would always support me and my decision and especially if it involved nature and animals.
Friday came and off I went to the museum. I was met by a lovely man who ran the club, Paul. Paul had a few print outs of which he handed out to the small group of eager students from various schools. Oh my, it was a species identification sheet! How exciting. Off we went in pairs to identify the animals on the sheet from the taxidermy display. At that point, I had no clue what taxidermy was. All I knew them as were, stuffed animals. The Fridays came and went, learning about how bees make honey, bird identification, the history of tribes in Zimbabwe (yes, not all about animals and nature), colonialism and transportation. It got to the point where I wanted to know more. I asked Paul a lot of questions about his job and other roles within the museum. After the club finished at 4pm, he would take me downstairs where all the archives and offices were. I was introduced to the Zoology Department. My thought was, “Zoology…maybe something to do with Zoos! That’s still animals, right?” Not only that but I got to visit the archaeological department too! Wow, I remember my eyes being so big with amazement. But, in the special Zoology room, I saw various animals stuffed in drawers with tags and information on them, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates in jars of some sort of liquid, snake skins and much more. I could have been lost in there for hours. Paul would tell me all about each specimen and I never uttered a word, just listened.
The archaeological storage room was another area where I lost myself. From bottom to top there were shelves, full of artefacts. The gentleman there showed me around and I saw pottery, knives, guns, tools, clothing, maps, books, too much to list. If I wanted to touch anything, I had to wear gloves. Entering that room was like going back in a time machine to different eras. Although this was interesting, nothing beat the Zoology rooms. That’s where I really wanted to be as the main office looked out into the huge aviary of all the main birds you can think of seeing in that part of the world. Some rescued, some brought in by members of the public, others confiscated from people caching them in snares. The chorus whilst in the office could never be beaten. Paul used to get me grating 2kg of carrots and crumb 2 loaves of bread, chop various other fruits and vegetables and scatter it all on 4 large enamel baking trays. This was the highlight os the day as I got to care for the birds even though I always ended up with grated knuckles.
Paul became very busy and was unable to dedicate a lot of time to the club so had asked me to run it for the next few months until they cease the idea. I felt so important. I would teach children, albeit the same age as myself, species identification, their role in ecosystems, how to draw animals and the habitats in which they reside. I couldn’t wait until 4pm to rush down and prepare the food for the birds this was the highlight of the day. If I prepared the food on time, I was allowed to sit in the aviary and watch the different behaviours. Which bird fed on what food, which couples were dating, the tree preference of others and much more. I would analyse everything I could.
Although the club had ended, I still attended the museum every Friday and by now, I was old enough to cycle in. Bird feeding led to terrapin pond cleaning to fish tank cleaning to mice cage cleaning (food for the boa constrictors) which led to snake tank cleaning under supervision. These constrictors were mean with a bad reputation so care was needed. Luckily, the snake cleaning wasn’t needed as often as the rest. I was now in charge of all the live specimens on a Friday.
Again, months passed and I needed more responsibility so I started to maintain the specimen records. I would ensure all the details on the tags of specimens in the special room were in the catalogue and up to date. The location they were collected, their common name and Latin name, sex, approximate age and any other information the tag had had to be in the books. We didn’t have a computer back then. From this, I taught myself a lot of animals identification and record keeping.
If you ask me now, the same question at the start, I would reply, “A Zoologist like Paul.” He was my idol and taught me so much. One day we travelled 1 hour away to collect a vulture that had been snared. I got to see old ruins of the tribes from centuries ago at Ziwa in Nyanga, Zimbabwe. The kraals (where their animals would be kept), the layout of the huts, rock paintings, corn mills and more. It was all so exciting but not as exciting as having a vulture to care for, rehabilitate and then later release. Oh, he was smelly. The stench of rotting meat! Luckily he was only with us briefly until he was released at the local game park, Cecil Kop.
I learnt how to store specimens in ethanol, but the best part was learning how to stuff a parrot. Paul had a parrot as did I and I mirrored his actions. All I remember was how intricate and delicate the process was but, I did it. We did not have these in the collections so once they were finished and fully dried, we filled the tags in and in the draws they went. Sadly, I never got to do that again. The one Friday I went into ‘work’ and Mr Musango, Paul’s boss told me that Paul had been killed whilst riding to work. He was knocked off his bike and died instantly. This shattered me. He was my idol and all I wanted to be was like him. Be that knowledgeable Zoologist. I was not going to let him down and I wanted to keep everything he taught me alive in the museum.
For the next 5 years (yup, I was there for 7 years), I continued my Fridays and the odd Saturday with my tasks but my main focus was the aviary and fish tanks. The fish tanks had a water change and clean every week and the birds got their feed. Mr Musango and I, with a few others came up with an exciting project for the aviary. We were to divide the vegetation up into 4 specific areas; desert area with sand baths, rocky outcrops and aloe plants, orchard for the frugivores, compost pile to attract all the worms and invertebrates for the insectivores, grassy area and a bushy area. We had hornbills, weaver birds, bee eaters, guineafowl, doves, sunbirds and so many more. The hornbill was my favourite as I called him “Show off”. He would always hide but every time I entered the aviary, he would always stay near and circle overhead. He was special. The guineafowl loved the sandy area and always had their sand baths.
As a team, we created a path guiding you through the different habitats and as soon as the staircase was put in, I had a new job, to guide visitors around and teach them the diversity of birds, their diets and preferred habitat. It was amazing and this was it! If I was asked, I would definitely be a Zoologist!
Sadly, I had to leave my passion and I moved to the UK at the age of 17yrs old and dreams haven’t changed, lets say, slightly more refined. This is for another day. The moral of this story is to encourage dreams, teach all the alternatives and let your passion develop in the area that makes you happy. Never stop believing and…be that vet!